Now that he’s gone or going, can it be said out loud? Chip Kelly’s system doesn’t win football games. It widens victory margins, piles up points and other statistics, entertains fans, and motivates athletes — so that may be enough to be called successful. But it’s not proven itself as a formula for defeating an opponent.
In his four years as a head coach, Kelly’s Ducks are unbeaten (38-0) when they lead at halftime. For the dozen or so games when the Ducks went to the locker room without a lead after two quarters, Kelly’s team has lost more often than won (5-6).
By racing to a quick lead, the Ducks have lured opponents into disarray and desperation. A team of 20-year-olds, who have their coached practice times limited by NCAA rules, have been ill-equipped to respond to the mayhem that Kelly unleashes.
Panic produces poor decisions, and the Ducks have learned to capitalize on those moments of misjudgment. The Ducks broke records for interceptions this season because teams so often had to resort to less practiced passes to make up for lost time.
Unfortunately, Kelly’s 20-year-olds have fallen victim to the same panic syndrome. They’ve trounced lesser opponents convincingly. But when faced with a team or a score that was roughly even, they’ve looked like Ducks out of water.
Games decided by a field goal most often bounced away from Kelly.
The National Football League learned decades ago that fans prefer close games, so salary caps and revenue sharing were instituted. By some measures, the NFL has more parity between teams than any other professional team league.
With more parity and less panic at the professional level, Kelly will never have the same control he’s had at the collegiate level. Grown men won’t look up to him the same way. Opponents won’t panic when hurried.
Professional players have contracts. They have families and mortgages and other commitments. The draft gives each team only one pick for each round. There are no letters of intent, no living room visits. It’s all business.
Because it’s a business, the opponents preparing to face Kelly’s team can fully prepare. They can study film until every tick and tendency of every offensive lineman is catalogued against the play he’s been trained to protect. Players lining up against Kelly’s teams will get better and better. They won’t graduate after a few years.
Kelly will continue to adapt. He’s clever and driven and opportunistic. He’ll continue to tinker in ways that reshape the game. Television viewers will love his razzmatazz. I wouldn’t be surprised to see bounce passes between downfield receivers added to Kelly’s fast break offense. He will find new ways to win at the next level.
Has Kelly been successful? Of course he has. He and his staff have continued building an elite football program. Kelly’s Ducks haven’t won many close games, but winning isn’t everything.
During his final press conference as head coach for the University of Oregon Ducks after the Fiesta Bowl win, he bragged about his team’s performance — in the hotel hallways.
“I never quantify what this football program is about by wins and losses. I quantify it by how our players are. It’s a whole thing, it’s on the field, off the field, in the community, what they do. This group, I can’t tell you how proud I am of what they do, every day, how they conduct their business, what they do.
“When we’re there at the hotel, people tell me it’s the best group they’ve ever been around because of how well‑mannered they are. Everywhere people get a chance to touch our players, the positive impact these players have in Eugene, throughout the state of Oregon, that’s what’s important to me.”
Kelly’s “Win The Day” credo always extended beyond football. This moment is all we can control. It’s more Eckhart Tolle than Vince Lombardi, but it has shaped the minds of a hundred young men and inspired millions more.
That should be more than enough to call his four years here a success. Chip Kelly has graduated to the next level, and we wish him well.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.